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Tuesday, July 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:51 A.M.
Streetcar picks up backers
Armed with a new study that details ridership and cost projections, boosters are gearing up to get the Seattle City Council on board the streetcar project and overcome concerns that the city has more important priorities, such as a $500 million maintenance backlog for streets, sidewalks and bridges.
A study the city released last week says the proposed streetcar from Westlake Center downtown to South Lake Union would have two trains running through the area at any given time, each of them carrying 30 to 35 riders an hour, on average, in the first year. That ridership could double or triple if the neighborhood grows as expected.
The streetcar would cost at least $1.4 million a year to operate, in addition to a $45 million tab for construction, cars and engineering. More than half of the capital cost $25 million would come from a special tax on property owners near the route, reducing the hit to taxpayers citywide. According to the study, $8.5 million would come from secured state and federal grants and $9 million from pending federal grants, leaving $2.5 million to be determined.
Some skeptics remain unimpressed.
"I'm just struck by how much they are pushing for something this silly. Why is a city with so little money for basic transportation needs, spending on this? I think it shows desperation," said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association and a member of a city-appointed panel that recently identified the $500 million maintenance backlog.
While touting some of the study's key facts last week, a public-relations firm also was stressing that diverse streetcar supporters include the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and Outback Steakhouse, which recently opened a restaurant near Lake Union's south shore. Dozens of companies with direct financial interests in South Lake Union redevelopment are also part of a lobbying coalition called Build The Streetcar.
The Seattle Times, which owns property in the area, has not taken a position and is still studying the streetcar, according to company spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin.
Michelle Sanidad, CEO of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, said the streetcar would help families get to health and social services in the South Lake Union area. Sanidad said the streetcar also could help bring visitors to a Northwest Native Canoe Center planned for a new South Lake Union Park.
James Kelly, executive director of the Urban League, said his group's backing for a streetcar is similar to its pro-monorail stance. "Anything that creates job opportunities, we're all for that, with unemployment for African Americans in double digits," Kelly said, referring to the percentage of unemployed.
Redevelopment, led by Paul Allen's Vulcan company, is projected to bring up to 20,000 jobs to the South Lake Union area, where Allen owns 60 acres. Vulcan has maintained that a streetcar would spur development and help workers get around the area.
Kelly said he has no assurances that African Americans would get jobs in the biotech hub envisioned for South Lake Union. But, he said, "We're at the table asking for meaningful participation, not just crumbs or handouts."
Kelly said the Urban League, Vulcan and the University of Washington are working on a plan that would identify opportunities for minority contractors and business owners in South Lake Union. He said construction, retail and building maintenance might provide the best job prospects for minorities.
Vote may come soon
As a transportation system, the streetcar would feature less convenience than Sound Transit's new Tacoma streetcar. The Tacoma line, already beating its ridership estimates with 2,300 daily users, benefits from a park-and-ride garage as well as a track corridor mostly separate from automobile lanes. Tacoma trains can stop other traffic at intersections, something not envisioned at South Lake Union.
Seattle streetcar backers say the system would work fine running in road lanes, similar to what is done in Portland and San Francisco.
The $214,000 study, by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates and URS Corp., also said the streetcar would fare well when compared to similar projects in other cities.
Parsons Brinckerhoff which is also leading Sound Transit's study of future expansions may potentially reap engineering contracts for the streetcar if the plan gets approved. Asked if the firm can be objective, senior project manager Art Borst said: "If we don't do that, we don't stay in business. It would be very obvious if we didn't produce an objective report."
The streetcar campaign is intensifying because the City Council may soon vote on moving the project forward. The Seattle Department of Transportation hopes a key council committee will consider next Tuesday a plan that would take streetcar analysis to a more detailed level, in which operating and financing plans would be drawn up. If the council approves that, a final "go" or "no-go" vote would follow.
In preparing for a council decision, streetcar supporters took journalists on a walking tour of the proposed route last month. They also sent reporters some key findings from the streetcar study before it was released and before council members had even seen it. And tomorrow they will hold a fund-raiser for the streetcar hosted by Mayor Greg Nickels and Council President Jan Drago. The promotional blitz even includes a painted mural on a high-rise building at Sixth and Westlake avenues.
Councilman Nick Licata said the lobbying has barely begun.
"The council is going to be like Troy looking out at a bay full of Greek ships with all the constituents the mayor is going to corral. He wants this trolley badly," Licata said.
But streetcar opponents may also buttonhole council members. Fremont developer Suzie Burke said she wouldn't support the streetcar "unless we get every other transportation need taken care of, and I don't think we're even close."
Burke also said she's disturbed by the aggressiveness of the pro-streetcar campaign.
"This is not being done by good-choice methods. This is being done by who can buy the most push," she said.
Given the city's continuing budget constraints, Licata said council members will not want to be seen as favoring South Lake Union over other neighborhoods.
"Council members will look at this and ask, 'Are we putting too many eggs in one basket?' That's where the debate is going to be."
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